At the end of the week, Muslims worldwide look forward to taking a break from their obligations to attend midday prayer, a congregational worship that includes a short sermon from the imam.
On Friday, though, the usual outlook of spiritual devotion was replaced by grief and fear as Muslims, along with the rest of the world, followed the developments of the horrific terror attack that claimed 49 lives at two New Zealand mosques.
“There is a lot of sadness and a lot of fear in the community,” said Muhammad Fayyaz, a former president and now council leader at the Islamic Society of Greater Harrisburg. “People are worried about their safety…these kinds of incidents, regardless of who is committing – regardless of their religion or skin color – this is a crime against humanity and it affects all of us. It doesn’t matter if it happens in the Middle East, Pakistan, India, Europe or here in the U.S. The loss of human life is very painful.”
In the worst mass killing in New Zealand’s history, a gunman on Friday killed 49 people and wounded more than 40 at two Christchurch mosques, live-streaming online some of the shooting. Authorities condemned the attack as terrorism. The attacker, an Australian man, had published a “manifesto” denouncing immigrants, calling them “invaders”.
The attack prompted Muslim mosques and community centers to raise security protocols.
Here in Pennsylvania – and across the country – the Philadelphia chapter of the Council for American-Islamic Relations issued an advisory to mosques and community centers urging leaders to work closely with local law enforcement agencies to increase vigilance and security.
“These are real times. It’s not just something that happened,” said Ahmet Selim Tekelioglu, a visiting imam at the Islamic Community Center of Lancaster and an education director for CAIR-Philadelphia.
“Anytime a terrorist attack happens you realize we have as a society failed to respond to dehumanizing messages. That’s true in the case of anti-Semitism, xenophobia and anti-immigrant and anti Muslim rhetoric. We failed to respond as society at large.”
Although the attack played out halfway across the world, its aftershock reverberated across the U.S. Muslim community in this country, which has in recent years negotiated an increasingly hostile landscape.
In the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks, U.S. Muslims were targeted by a slew of hate crimes, some tragically resulting in loss of life. More recently, particularly in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, increasingly divisive political rhetoric and religious intolerance fueled a spike in hate crimes and violence against Muslims.
Although the annual FBI report on hate crimes last year showed that crimes against Muslims had dropped 6 percent from 2016, individuals of the Islamic faith were still the target of nearly 20 percent of religiously motivated hate crimes.
Civil rights advocates generally suggest that those official numbers are vastly under-reported because many victims of crimes choose not to report the crime to law enforcement. In addition, reporting practices by thousands of law enforcement agencies nationwide are widely unreliable.
“We are going to continue to have cases like this,” Tekelioglu said. “It’s a really sad time..this type of violence and hate is unacceptable in any country. I think people worldwide have a responsibility to stand up and say no.”
Friday’s terror attack in New Zealand also stirred up fresh memories of grief and pain for members of the Jewish community, who last November gathered in mourning after a mass shooter killed 11 people and wounded six others in a massacre at the Tree of Life Congregation Synagogue in Pittsburgh.
“It’s just awful that someone would feel or a group of people would feel that they can go into a mosque and kill people who are worshipping God. It’s just awful. Just awful,” said Rabbi Eric Cytryn of Beth El Temple in Harrisburg.
“I think every religious leader wants to create an atmosphere of both outside peace and inner spiritual peace in their house of worship so people can feel comfortable thanking God for what they have and showing gratitude for God’s presence in their life. To go into a house of worship during prayer and to feel this is something you should be doing.. people who do this are godless. They are worshipping something foreign. There are many paths to one God and murder is never acceptable.”
Cytryn acknowledged that the New Zealand mosque attacks had heightened security alerts across his faith community.
“I think this is the kind of moment where you are afraid for Muslims, Christians and Jews that there will be copycats, crazy people who feel they can just do awful things in the name of whatever cause tells them it’s ok to murder defenseless people in cold blood.”
Muslim congregants across the region on Friday persevered in their attendance of midday prayer services but with heavy hearts.
“You can identify with Friday prayers. It’s something we all do. You go with your family, with the kids,” said Atizaz Mansoor, a member of the Islamic Society of Greater Harrisburg. “It’s not something you ever give thought to – that there is any risk. It’s a spiritual time and day. We can all relate. It could have been any mosque, anywhere in the world.”
A cardiologist with PinnacleHealth, Mansoor said incidents like the one in New Zealand shatter the lives of millions of people trying to live ordinary lives.
“You can readily identify. They are all just us,” he said. “Everyone is living the same kind of story, the same life. We have families, loved ones, you go to worship, you go to work. People are just trying to live their lives, trying to live a good and loving life and to have that ripped asunder is horrifying to watch.”
Fayyaz, the past president of the Islamic Society of Greater Harrisburg, urged everyone to look beyond the glut of hateful, anti-Muslim rhetoric on social media.
“Definitely it’s a lack of knowledge,” he said. “People don’t take the time to understand..they tend to believe whatever is coming across social media.”
Tekelioglu called on elected officials to commit themselves to opposing hate rhetoric and violence in every form. He said elected officials had to be a part of a systematic approach needed to dismantle hate and violence.
“It requires people to be engaged,” he said.
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